Critic tackles election year | Issue 19

Critic tackles election year | Issue 19

Laila Harrť

Laila is, without a doubt, a politician. She has deftly navigated herself across the political scene for years now, and her latest adventure as leader of the Internet Party is no exception. Even with a head cold, she was able to redefine and tear apart every question I asked her. Itís intensely interesting to watch a new, slightly dishevelled party be taken under the wing of someone so known in the political sphere; meeting her made me realise if anyone is able to give the Internet Party some clout, itís her.

Iíve got a few things I want to talk to you about. The first thing is that your tertiary policy announcement has yet to come, but I was just wondering, what are some tech projects the Internet Party wants to bring to universities?
[...] The focus of our tertiary policy is on funding. So we are promoting free tertiary education, and our policy is centred on full funding of fees and a universal student allowance, and tackling the existing debt burden on people whoíve graduated. So our full tertiary education policy is going to be under development beyond the election. Itís not an area that weíve put at the top of our list beyond the fees/student costs issue for detailed policy development pre-election.

Yeah, obviously I havenít seen it Ďcause itís under construction, I was just wondering if there was, sort of, a technological edge. Or is that a different policy altogether?
Weíll be releasing our innovation policy in the next few weeks; that will be another blockbuster of ours. Itís one of our top six platform issues, and it will certainly refer to the education system. But itís primarily built around how we propose to make New Zealand an incubator for start-ups, and to push for the globalisation of start-ups from a much earlier stage than we currently have. So what we understand is the whole lifecycle of the tech process, and that is what weíll be focusing our innovation policy around.

Just regarding universal student allowance, interest-free loans, fee-free, etc.; thatís quite a common policy across a lot of parties.
No itís not.
On the left it is.
No other parties are committed to a priority of tertiary education.

The Greens have a tertiary fee-free working towards policy as well.
They may have it as a working towards policy, they havenít got it as a priority ... I mean, that wasnít new to me, but when Iím on platforms with the Greens and the tertiary institutions, that isnít the message that theyíre giving. I mean, Iím not having a go at the Greens here, but the fact is, that we are the only party that treats tertiary education as a priority, and we donít just do it when weíre standing on university campuses.

So students are a priority for the Internet Party?
Absolutely. I mean, thatís why Iím the leader of the Internet Party. The one policy that closed the deal for me was free tertiary education. I have been fighting for free tertiary education since 1990, when Labour introduced the first student fees, I think itís an outrage that my generation, who got a free tertiary education, have put these barriers in front of subsequent generations, and for me this is a bottom line of a leadership of the Internet Party, and itís what closed the deal for me in coming into the leadership. Itís very serious ... students should not accept the line that we canít afford it as a country. We afforded it as a country when we had a whole lot less money than weíve got now. We are richer now than we were when we provided free tertiary education, so it is completely affordable; weíre paying for it, weíre just paying for it the wrong way.

Cause, yeah, itís transforming from a right to a privilege, which is problematic.
Totally problematic, yeah. For me, the social contract depends on people experiencing the power of community as theyíre growing up and developing and becoming adults. What better way to create a sense of community, social engagement, than to provide people with maximum education opportunities? And for people to understand, as I did, that we had opportunities because we lived in a democratic society. So free tertiary education is a very powerful society-building tool, and of course itís also a very powerful economic tool, and weíve seen time and time again countries that introduce free tertiary education overtaking us within ten years on the technology and innovation stakes. Itís a precondition to a tech economy.

Youíve traditionally been a champion of womenís rights, which is fantastic, and I was looking at one of your policy incubator discussions about your intent to decriminalise abortion. Some of the negative comments were pretty horrifying. Obviously there is a lot of positive response, but I was wondering how you feel about the reaction?
I didnít see too many horrifying comments. First of all, the overwhelming reaction of our members was support.

Mmm, like 75 per cent.
And I think every party has people who feel strongly opposed to a womanís right to choose. I didnít think that those people generally put that in a hostile or negative way. There were some, but thatís their right. I donít think you should overplay that. I think whatís great is the size of the majority in favour and I think the pretty respectable way people who either wanted to block it or oppose it went about putting their views forward on the poll. So no, I didnít react negatively to that at all. Thatís democracy. No other party is prepared to have these discussions in public. The very fact that youíve seen our debate shows how different we are and how weíre not scared of debate. I mean, Iíve spent a lifetime in parties that try to close down every sensitive political debate. And Iím proud of the fact that we do it in the open.

Within the context of the last few weeks, weíve had big discussion about whether or not thereís a rape culture in New Zealand. So do you believe thereís a rape culture in New Zealand?
I wouldnít express it that way, I donít think that divisive language helps to protect women from violence, and itís not empowering language, and itís not positive language. So itís not the language I would use to describe gender relationships. That doesnít mean that there isnít rape, that there isnít sexual violence, and there isnít gender inequality Ė of course there is Ė but I would prefer to define New Zealandís culture in far more empowering terms than that. Donít like the language.
What sort of terms?
I think we have unbelievable power as women in this country, and we face many obstacles to using our power for good. And so the culture of New Zealand is a culture of innovation; first in the world for women to win the vote. One of the last in the world to deliver paid parental leave, so weíve had some great highs, and weíve taken a long time to catch up with the reality that was generated by women entering the paid workforce in large numbers. We have tough, strong women in this country, and we need to be in an environment where our equality is valued by everybody and weíve dealt with issues like domestic violence, like pay issues. I understand the reason people use really provocative language, but itís not something I did in the 1980s and itís not something Iím going to do now.

Why did you leave the Green Party?
Well, the reason I resigned from the Green Party was because I became the leader of the Internet Party.

There was a bit of a crossover, wasnít there? Wasnít there a period where you were still on the Greens campaign team?
No, no, no. No. God, no. I resigned from the Greens campaign team well before I decided to accept the leadership of the Internet Party.
So there was a significant gap?
Weeks, yeah. This all happened very quickly.

With things like the environmental policy, some of itís not too dissimilar to the Green Party, so Iím wondering whatís better, or what do you think you could bring to the environmentally conscious people of our country?
I donít think itís a question of ďbetter and worse.Ē I mean, I think itís great that weíre having a competition for the best environment policy, by the way.

So do I!
What better competition to have. There are some things in our policy that are unique. For instance, our commitment on renewables by 2025 for electricity is the strongest plan for that, and our focus on things like e-waste is unique within our policy. There are also those that weíve referenced directly to the Greens, for instance, we totally support their proposal to dump the Emissions Trading Scheme and replace it with a carbon tax. We donít agree with the way they want to use the funds from the carbon tax. So there are some differences, but thereís an awful lot of common ground, and our policy was created by three hundred of our members actively engaging in the process as well as a lot of expert input from outside the party.
This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2014.
Posted 9:16pm Sunday 10th August 2014 by Carys Goodwin.